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									                                Regulating Journalists
                                     By Chris Wheal
                       Chair, NUJ Professional Training Committee
                                      January 2005

                        Produced as CONSULTATION DOCUMENT
                  for the NUJ Professional Training Committee (ProfCom)

                                     This document is NOT:
            Official NUJ policy (or an even an indication of what NUJ policy will be),
             nor it is a recommendation from the Professional Training Committee

                                Its purpose is to start a debate

ProfCom’s aim is to produce a more detailed report, including submissions received in
response to this document, in time for the NUJ’s Annual Delegate Meeting in Scarborough
(7-10 April). We are planning a fringe meeting at ADM with MediaWise, the NUJ Ethics
Council, and the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom.

                    Responses should be emailed to

1.       Is journalism a trade or a profession?
This is a question that has long vexed journalists. Within the NUJ we often try to describe ourselves as
professionals yet glorify in being a skilled trade when it comes to identifying with the working class
cause of trade unionism.

This paper will argue that journalism in the UK is currently neither a trade nor a profession. It is an
unregulated job title that is open to charlatans, miscreants and the literary equivalent of snake-oil
salesmen. It is no wonder our work is held in such low public esteem.

The old working class/middle-class divide is irrelevant when it comes to identifying trades from
professions. The difference between a trade and a profession is becoming blurred. Both are
increasingly regulated and both increasingly demand minimum standards. In simple terms, the entry
requirements to the job title and the way in which an individual keeps or renews that title is
increasingly all that marks the difference between a trade and a profession. Some tradesmen can, and
regularly do, earn more than some professionals.

2.      Testing, testing 1, 2, 3.
In general terms, the tradesman has to pass an initial exam and then take a more up-to-date exam at
regular intervals in order to continue to practise their trade. This ensures their skills are current and
that they are aware of all the relevant legislation, including health and safety laws. A recognised
                                Regulating journalists by Chris Wheal

tradesman will then be given an identity badge enabling them to trade and giving the public the
confidence to employ them.

Take gas fitters, for example. CORGI was founded in 1970 as the Confederation for the Registration of
Gas Installers, and was given the task of ensuring that gas work was carried out safely. Initially, gas
installers could become affiliated to CORGI on a voluntary basis. In 1991, however, the Health &
Safety Executive (HSE) asked CORGI to maintain a register of competent gas installers in the UK.
CORGI became the ‘Council for Registered Gas Installers’.

CORGI-registered installers have to undergo at least the minimum requirement of training before they
are accepted on to the CORGI register. Most have significantly more training. The training and
assessments that registered gas installers have are not only about the technical know-how of specific
appliances but also about safety. All assessments have to be renewed every five years in order to
keep installers up to date with ever-changing standards and regulations and to keep their knowledge

The Gas Safety Installation and Use Regulations 1998 came into force on October 31, 1998. Up to
March 31, 2001 32 installers were prosecuted for not being registered with CORGI.
The professional, on the other hand has to pass a series of examinations, usually on top of having a
degree (or recognised vocational equivalent), in order to enter a profession (associate level). This
entitles them to use letters after their name. Individuals then have to complete a minimum number of
hours of recognised educational activity each year, called continuing professional development (CPD)
or continuing professional education (CPE), for their status to be maintained. CPD/E does not
necessarily mean more exams but may include, courses, attending conferences and even reading
industry papers and magazines. There is also usually a higher level (fellowship) available to those who
carry out a more challenging research project, higher exam or who have made a special contribution
to their profession. Fellows too have to carry out CPD/E.

3.        New internationalism
Standards are often internationally recognised, at least throughout the EU. Sometimes this takes the
form of simple cross-recognition, sometimes it involves applying for a separate identifiable set of
letters, such as chartered engineers who have C.Eng after their name to recognise their UK status but
Eur.Ing in front of their name to recognise their Europe-wide authority. Either system enables workers
from one country to work in another with their own qualification and status recognised as equal to the
host nation’s version.

4.      Fit for purpose?
Where does UK journalism fit? Nowhere. While many UK journalists struggle through university
courses, work for apprentice pay and spend hours in evening classes or practising shorthand to reach
the standards recognised by a variety of industry qualifications, many have received no training. It is
evident that many have no idea about media law, ethics or even English usage. Anyone can call
themselves a journalist even if they have never had an item published or broadcast.

Employers used to enforce some sort of minimum standards on the industry but the liberalisation of
training under Thatcher (the scrapping of the training levy, for example) meant those who paid for
training had higher costs than those who didn’t, so company training, in most cases, fell by the
wayside. The numbers entering journalism carried on rising, which left the gates open to anyone.

With the advent first of desk-top publishing and, later, of the internet and other new media, plus the
substantial reduction in the price of video and digital cameras, new “alternative” routes in have opened
up too. And now we have bloggers.

It should be noted here that many of those who entered journalism without formal training are excellent
journalists and not all those who gained qualifications are that good.
But the NUJ’s entry criteria are purely dependent on income from journalism not on the standard or
quality of that journalism. And once in, the anti-trade union legislation ensures that there is nothing the

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                                Regulating journalists by Chris Wheal

NUJ can do to expel them, no matter how many times they breach the code of conduct or the union’s

5.      The Italian Job
In other countries, such as Italy, legislation ensures that it is not possible to trade as a journalist
without falling under the regulatory regime. All Italian journalists need to belong to the Ordine dei
Journaliste in order to practice. In order to become a member, you must work for at least three months
and then take an exam. It is like doing articles before becoming a solicitor in the UK. The Ordine then
controls the profession and can kick out those who are "unprofessional". Consequently, journalism is
more highly thought of in Italy, better paid and has much higher status. Journalists are better
educated. However, it does seem to stultify journalism there in a way that would not be acceptable

6.       We are the self-regulation society
Professions in the UK have tended to self-regulate, rather than have the form of regulation and
registration imposed upon them. Professions also started regulating earlier than trades. Trades have
tended to have had regulation forced upon them after either single bad event or a series of high profile
errors or omissions that caused problems. Some trade regulatory bodies have union involvement,
such as for electricians, which involves Amicus.

But self-regulation is increasingly slipping away, even from the professions. Where a number of
professional bodies with competing qualifications and standards seek to represent standards in a
particular field, they have either had to work together, often leading to mergers between the bodies (as
with accountants recently), or the government has brought in an external and often statutory regulator
(as with insurance and financial advice). Even where a single body has regulated a profession, there is
a creeping sense that the Old Boy Network is too lenient and statutory regulation is required, at least
for parts of the profession’s activities. In accountancy, for example, the Department of Trade and
Industry decides which qualifications a person must hold to carry out company audits, approving some
of the professional bodies but not all and authorising other qualifications outside the main professional
groups. Accountants giving financial advice about life assurance, pensions and savings products are
regulated separately by the Financial Services Authority, which comes under The Treasury.

7.       The consumer comes first
A major function of modern regulation is to empower the public by giving them the ability to check and
verify that someone who claims to do a particular job is actually authorised to do so. For trades this is
often through an approved identity card, renewed every few years on completion of the revised exams.
For professions this takes the form of published lists of approved professionals. Websites have then
developed to help find a recognised professional who is either local or has specialist knowledge
relevant to the searcher’s needs. Sometime the regulators publish these lists freely.

There are already many groups who want to see an approved list of journalists so they can talk only to
those on the list of registered or approved journalists. This pressure is mounting.
The public also want to be able to complain and to have bad journalists removed from the register.
Measuring bad journalism and its impact on consumers of journalism is too complex to go into in
detail. The Press Complaints Commission only accepts complaints under strict conditions so its figures
of 3,649 complaints (a record, and up 39% on the previous year) is certainly just the tip of the iceberg.
The Guardian’s readers’ editor received more than 45,000 calls, letters and emails in his first six years
and is currently running at about 10,000 a year.

PressWise suggests that many of the people worst affected by shoddy journalism do not, or cannot,
complain – who complains on behalf of asylum seekers, for example? PressWise, which deals only
with serious cases, copes with more than 300 enquiries a year. The toll on people can be great. It has
been established, for example, that insensitive reporting of suicides can contribute to other individuals
taking their own lives.

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8.       Can’t hold back the tide
Forget “hold the front page”; to ignore the issue of regulation and registration of journalists would be to
try to hold back the tide like King Canute. Recent history of regulatory reform in general, plus the
growing expectations of the public and interested parties, suggests that there will be moves towards
formal regulation and/or registration of all professions and trades. That trend will continue for those
trades and professions already self-regulated as well as for jobs, such as journalism, that are currently
a free-for-all. Journalism will be regulated and the names of approved journalists are likely to be held
on a central register at some point in the near future.

The NUJ can either be involved in establishing that system, help shape it and support it, or it can be
sidelined and left out. Whatever approach it takes, the NUJ will have to consider what it does about its
membership criteria. Under what conditions would it be acceptable for the NUJ to permit into
membership a journalist without the minimum required qualifications (students and trainees might be
acceptable, but for what length of time?)? Under what conditions would it be acceptable for the NUJ to
continue offering membership benefits to a journalist who, at a fair hearing and after appeal with union
or legal backing, had been disciplined and removed from a centrally held register? What messages
would that send out to the public?

9.     Back to the future
There are a number of regulatory options:

1. Trade model 1
   All journalists would be required to have an entry exam. Students would have a maximum of three
   chances to pass the exam over a period of no more than two years. They would then have to
   attend a course (say two-days) every three to five years to update them on legal, regulatory, ethical
   and health and safety issues that have changed during that period. They would be required to sit
   an exam at the end of each course and to pass. Those who failed would be given three chances in
   total over a period of no more than six months to retake the course and pass the exam. Failure to
   pass after three attempts would result in them being struck off and unable to trade as a journalist.

    2. Trade model 2
    There would be a central register of journalists. Although there would be no entry requirements
    and no courses or exams, there would be standards and a complaints system with sanctions for
    those found to have breached standards, including being struck off.

    3. Professional model 1
    Journalists establish a professional body (or liberate the Chartered Institute of Journalists from the
    lethargic grasp of the IoJ(TU) for this purpose) that sets entry requirements and minimum
    standards of on-going continuing professional development. Those who meet the membership
    standards have letters after their name and may even call themselves “chartered journalists”. The
    system is voluntary and others who fail to achieve, or do not seek, the new professional status
    may continue as journalists but the professional body urges the public and employers to deal only
    with professionals. The professional body has disciplinary rules and can expel journalists from the

    4. Professional model 2.
    Similar to above but a separate and independent (or State appointed) regulator sets minimum
    standards for entry. The regulator either adopts the professional body’s standards as its minimum
    or the professional body’s standards are set above the minimum level in consultation the
    regulator. The regulator approves the professional body’s standards and disciplinary system,
    exempting members of the professional body from further examinations. Those meeting minimum
    regulated standards set outside the professional body may trade as journalists but those within the
    profession have an enhanced status.

10.     Grandfather clocked
Whenever regulatory regimes have developed in the past there has been a system to incorporate
those already working within the field – this is called grandfathering. It means those who have already

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                               Regulating journalists by Chris Wheal

demonstrated the ability of work professionally get included without having to take the exams or
achieve the new standards. Usually, it is simply based on the fact that a person has done the job for X
number of years so they must be OK.

It is a fairly disreputable system. For example, insurance brokers who were regulated by the statutory
body the Insurance Brokers Registration Council (IBRC) were permitted to remain regulated long after
the IBRC decided that the minimum entry qualification was to be the Chartered Insurance Institute’s
professional qualification. The vast majority of the IBRC had never achieved that standard and could
never achieve it. When brokers sold their business and set up new ones, they had to meet the new
standards to rejoin the IBRC – few could do so. They went off and set up their own bodies under a
different regulatory regimes. The government has since scrapped the IBRC and, after attempts at
different forms of self-regulation failed, has brought general insurance broking under the statutory
regulator the FSA.

There must be either no grandfathering or very strict grandfathering, based on those who have
recently taken approved exams or qualifications. People who have graduated from approved
journalism degree courses within the past three to five years or those who have completed and
passed NCTJ or BJTC qualifications within a similar timescale, for example, ought to be the only
people grandfathered in. The author of this report, for example, ought to be made to sit an approved
exam and not just be grandfathered in.

11.      Too little, too late
The current thinking on the regulation of journalists is based on the Press Complaints Commission,
with its code of conduct, and the NUJ’s own code of conduct. This often means measuring up articles
that have been printed against a code of what was allowed. Other measures similarly involve dealing
with errors and inaccuracies after publication, such as libel and contempt of court cases. While post-
publication work and ethics need to be monitored, we also need to step in earlier and look how and
why uneducated and untrained people are getting into journalism with little or no idea about what most
of us consider to be the basics. Once in, we also need a method of ensuring that journalists stay up to
speed on the changing legal and ethical framework in which they operate.

This is already happening to every other trade and profession in the UK. It is only a matter of time
before it happens to journalism. Let’s be forefront of it, not dragged like the slow-moving 100-year-old
the NUJ sometimes appears to be.

What do we want? Regulation. When do we want it? NOW!

                                                                                          Chris Wheal
                                                                                             Jan 2005

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